A healthy pregnancy isn’t just about the lifestyle decisions women make after they see a positive result on a pregnancy test. In fact, according to ProMedica obstetrician/gynecologist Brittany Denny, DO, planning and preparing for a healthy pregnancy should begin well in advance of conception.
Dr. Denny explains that the more women do for the sake of preventive health and their own general wellness before they get pregnant, the greater the likelihood of having a healthy pregnancy and baby—and the sooner they get started on that path, the better. “Ideally, women should come to see us a year prior to conception so we can help get them where they need to be by the time they get pregnant,” she says.
Perhaps not surprising, a major aspect of preparing the body for a healthy pregnancy is getting regular exercise and proper nutrition, as well as cutting out unhealthy habits such as smoking and alcohol or drug use. Prenatal vitamins, especially folic acid, are recommended as well. However, as Dr. Denny points out, it’s too late for women to begin taking folic acid once they learn they’re pregnant because the baby’s neural tube is already formed at that time.
Being overweight or obese is yet another factor women should address prior to conception in order to promote the healthiest possible pregnancy. Obesity can affect fertility, potentially making it more difficult to conceive. Furthermore, it puts the woman at greater risk of developing diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy, and increases the risk of neural tube defects and cardiovascular anomalies in the developing baby.
What about rigorous exercise regimens? Is it safe for women to continue them into pregnancy? “If you were doing an exercise regimen before, the general recommendation is to keep doing it during pregnancy. Obvious exceptions would be contact sports or taking up something like scuba diving while pregnant. If you have any questions about whether a regimen is safe or not, be sure to discuss them with your doctor,” says. Dr. Denny.
In addition to adopting healthier lifestyle habits, it’s important for women to work with their doctor to stabilize any chronic conditions they may have, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or hyperthyroidism, all of which can make a pregnancy high-risk, and to make sure they’re caught up on any routine screenings and vaccinations, Dr. Denny advises.
She further notes that certain vaccinations are not safe during pregnancy and should, therefore, be caught up prior to conception. Among these are human papillomavirus (HPV); measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); and chicken pox (varicella). On the other hand, the influenza and tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccines are safe to get while pregnant.
An often overlooked aspect of healthy pregnancy planning is the timing of pregnancies. “Women commonly plan how many babies they want to have but don’t give much thought to the spacing of their pregnancies. This is an important consideration because the risk of health problems increases when pregnancies are spaced closer than 18 months apart,” states Dr. Denny.
Though their role is minimal in preparing for a healthy pregnancy, men, too, have a part to play. For instance, by avoiding smoking and alcohol or drug use—lifestyle habits known to lower sperm count—men can increase the likelihood of successful conception. Of course, avoiding smoking is also essential after the baby is born. “In households where someone smokes, there is a risk of sudden infant death. Even if you smoke outside and wash your hands and change your clothes afterward, you still carry harmful chemicals and fumes on your body. So there’s no safe way to smoke around a pregnant woman or baby,” Dr. Denny says.
Also, men and women alike should be aware of any family history of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, so any risk to the developing baby can be assessed and treatment can be adjusted accordingly.
Asked to summarize her best advice to women who are currently preparing for pregnancy, Dr. Denny states, “Be the healthiest possible version of yourself. That means getting regular preventive checkups, leading a healthy lifestyle, getting caught up with your screenings and vaccines, and maintaining a healthy body weight.”❦